Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Hadrian's Wall To A Haunted Inn

Sorry for the delay on the second section of this travel tale. Journalistic crises have kept us both rather busy over the past couple of days and this is the first time there has been a chance to write Part Two.

Northumberland was as beautiful as I remembered. I lived there for three years quite some time ago and loved it almost as much as my home country. It's not a bit like the south of England, much more wild and empty and remote. We headed straight from the airport to the old military road which runs roughly parallel with the A69 between Newcastle and Carlisle and follows, along much of its length, the course of Hadrian's Wall.

It is always with a slight shock of disbelief that you see these stretches of stone wall sitting in the midst of expanses of moorland or field.

They can't be genuine, you think, they must have been built as replicas. But they aren't. They've been carefully excavated out of the centuries of turf and earth in which they were buried since constructed by Roman legionaries around the first century AD.

The sections which have been excavated are kept tidy and free of weeds and grass, but mostly that's good Roman handiwork you see there. Built to last.

You sometimes get a better feeling of the immensity of that great wall stretching from sea to sea by looking out over a landscape which has a high lumpy bank running right through it, and realising that underneath that grass lie still hidden solid stone walls, awaiting discovery. Amazing.

The weather was pretty appalling on this first day, by the way, and going over Hartside towards Cumbria and Woolfest, we were sorry for the diehard cyclists who had managed to make it to the top, only to find the welcoming cafe firmly closed.

Journeying on into Cumbria to Woolfest, the rains cleared enough to allow us to admire the play of light and shadow on the Lake District peaks.

We were fortunate it was a wet Friday, as on summer weekends the Lake District is usually jammed solid with tourist traffic. Nevertheless, it was a lot more crowded than we liked, so after enjoying Woolfest thoroughly, we headed back gratefully across to the moors again - this time Durham, the Land of the Prince Bishops (and believe me, those bishops didn't think they ruled the world, they knew they did! Made their fortunes out of the lead mines, most of them.)

The Durham moorlands are just as wild and remote and unpopulated as Northumbria, but theirs is the stillness and emptiness of former industrial landscapes. In the 19th century this would have been a ferment of noise and smoke and haphazard buildings. Lead mining and smelting was the principal industry, although it is now long gone and the land has retaken its own. Just here and there you find echoes of the past - empty stone cottages once occupied by families of mine workers, green tracks leading to lost villages, remnants of once vital structures.

This bit of ruinous masonry, which looks like the arch of a bridge, is actually a section of a lead flue which ran from the smelter across the valley, into the side of a hill, and out at the top into a chimney, carrying the poisonous smoke away from the valley bottom. Regrettably, the idea behind it wasn't to keep the air clean for residents but to catch any lead contained in the fumes as it concentrated on the roof of the flue. At regular intervals workers were sent into the flue itself to scrape off the lead into containers below. Not the healthiest work option, one would think. Interestingly, I noticed from an old photograph that most of the workers in the smelter wore handknitted shawls folded under their hats. It was thought this was to protect their heads from the intense heat. And no, I don't know the average life expectancy of a 19thc lead worker. Not sure I want to.

The moors, though, were beautiful now, their industrial past far behind them. We watched black grouse shepherding their families of chicks through the heather, drank in the bitingly cold fresh air (it's a lot further north than West Cork, and believe me you notice it!), and found patches of wonderful wild flowers.

Here's the gorgeous spirit doll that Ambermoggie gave me, sitting in a field of wild pansies. Don't they match her perfectly?

At length, as the evening was drawing on, we descended slowly from the moors by winding little roads, crossed back into Northumberland, and came, at last, to the haunted village of Blanchland.

It's an other-worldly place, this. I first encountered Blanchland long long ago, in my student hitchiking days. I was dropped off here mid-afternoon and instantly felt an atmosphere so strong I couldn't believe it. It wasn't unfriendly, wasn't threatening - just calmly strong. I didn't even learn the name of the village before I got another lift onwards to where I was headed, but many years later, when I was living in Northumberland, I discovered it again. It was once the abbey of the White Friars, but when Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries and gave their rich lands to his favourites, the gentle reign of the friars was over. Or was it...? People say that the friars are still there, still watching over their beloved community within its ancient stone walls.

This is what officially remains of Blanchland Abbey - the old church in its atmospheric graveyard.

It's a beautifully peaceful place, relaxing to wander in, with no sense of gloom at all - rather the opposite in fact. It's a strangely happy place.

And right next to it - its wall abutting right on to the graveyard - is the Lord Crewe Arms.

Where that black car is parked on the left of the picture is the abbey church and graveyard. The left-hand end of the inn is the oldest part, the pele tower. The Lord Crewe Arms was in fact part of the abbey, the section where guests were housed and the abbot had his own quarters, so it still continues its ancient tradition of hospitality to travellers.

We're talking about a fairly venerable building here, you understand. In the main hall, that's the fireplace on the left. They put an additional dining table in there now when occasion demands, but it's still the fireplace, with a vast chimney going right up to the roof. You can stand inside and look up. And if you do that, this is what you see.

You're standing right inside the fireplace in this picture and up above eye level in front of you is the now open priest's hole. These were the hiding places for priests or others on the run from enemy forces, only accessed through a concealed trapdoor. In this house, Dorothy Forster hid her brother from the Jacobite soldiers for many months, terrified that he would be found and taken. He survived, however, as did she. Unfortunately, being a woman, and therefore a pawn in the power games, she was married off to the Bishop of Durham, by which ploy the family were enabled to keep their estates (don't ask me, I didn't arrange it).

And whether because she was unhappy or because she cannot forget the anguish and terror of hiding her brother, Dorothy Forster continues to pace through the Lord Crewe Arms to this day, often surprising guests in one particular room by wandering past their bed in the middle of the night. She doesn't harm anyone, doesn't say anything - just goes on pacing past, lost in her own worries. She isn't giving away much in this portrait, which hangs on a wall of the inn.

No, we didn't stay in that room, it was already taken. It usually is, since most people can't pass up the chance of seeing a real, well-authenticated ghost. Instead our most courtly host, Alexander Todd, put us in the room directly over that one, at the very top of the pele tower. This would have been the place to which the monks retired precipitately at the sound of alarm and attack, hauling up a ladder so that they could remain safe until danger was past.

It's been done up a bit since the twelfth century though, a few home comforts added. Including a bed. Quite a nice bed too. And an exceptionally comfortable one. We passed a quiet night in peaceful slumber with no alarms or excursions of any kind.

Disappointed? Well.....

It's not that I have a story to tell. It's not really anything. Like that incident I described last Hallow-E'en, it's not that anything of real note actually happened. And yet...

Well here it is. Richard woke up at 5 am and decided to head up on to the moors for one more session with the black grouse. I decided to stay comfortably in bed, perhaps make a cup of tea later on, and work on the Pomotamus sock (hah, you thought there would be no knitting content in this post, didn't you?) So he went happily off, and I slid back into a relaxed doze...

Some time later, I was aware of quiet footsteps coming across the room. I drowsily thought it must be later than I'd realised and Richard was back. But he didn't announce his return as he would normally do. Then I thought (this is ridiculous I know, but it made sense at the time) that perhaps our landlord had heard Richard going out early, had wondered if we'd both flown the coop without paying, and was coming up to check. Now he was far too courteous a man to do any such thing, but that's what I thought, so I decided I'd better open an eye and reassure him.

Only there was no-one there. Surprised, I sat up, and looked around at the empty room. It was only then I realised that any visitor would have had to unlock and open the door, quite a noisy and creaky operation in a building like this. 'Funny', I thought, and, feeling sleepy, slid back down again under the covers.

Ten minutes later the same thing happened. Quiet footsteps crossing the room from the door to the window, past the foot of the bed. This time I jerked up in bed, muttering, 'For heaven's sake!' Only once more there was absolutely nobody there.

No, there was no sense of dread, no threat at all. No cold chills, no manic laughter. In fact it was oddly comforting, happy, just like it felt in the old churchyard. But nevertheless I got up, made a (strong) cup of tea, and had worked quite a few pattern repeats on Pomotamus before Richard came back.

That's all. It wasn't a dream, it wasn't imagination. I genuinely thought it was somebody coming into the room. Only whoever it was didn't use the door...

It was only afterwards that I read the history of the inn downstairs over breakfast. Apparently some people staying in that room a year or two before had woken in the night to see a monk kneeling in prayer near the bed. And they weren't frightened either, even reached out to touch him - and he disappeared.

Did I slip into another time? Or was I in a place that was so suffused with the spirit of the past that past and present exist side by side? If ghost it was, then all such experiences should be so happy and reassuring.


Angeluna said...

Oh, I loved every word of this post. The wild moors, Hadrian's wall, the Inn. I would even have loved a 5AM excursion to the moors with Richard and his camera.

Your last paragraph echoes my feelings about such things precisely.

pacalaga said...

Excellent. There's a reason I've always been drawn to the wild moors. One of these days I'll actually get there and see it all for myself.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for such an enjoyable read!
DH is taking his turn now - Hadrian's wall is a real treat for him to see.

Anonymous said...

What a beautiful post! I wanted to go to the British Isles before I started reading your blog (and I will be going, hopefully next spring), but your posts make me want to go even more. Oh, I cannot wait to lose all the money I made this summer going to the Lakes District and Cork. Thank you!

Faren said...

Thank you so much for sharing with us, this is a wonderful post, with wonderful pictures. I would love to visit all these wonderful places, and that is even before the footsteps!

SueJ said...

Thank you for the post & photos. These are lands that are really on our 'back door step' -less than an hour away & yet we seldom visit. Its either our own wild moors in Yorkshire or much furthur afield. We need to get our act together I feel!

Anonymous said...

I love it when you go on a trip! Hadrian's Wall gave me literal goosebumps. (And here they come back...) Fascinating about Blanchland, but strangely, no goosebumps. ;)

And thanks for a closer look at your spirit doll from Ambermoggie. The only problem is now I want one! Although I could certainly spare some fleece for felting... [g]

Anonymous said...

Thanks you for this post. While I am not a religious person, I do believe that there are forces at work in certain places (cemetaries, churches and maybe certain rooms at the inn) that we can't explain. I echo your sentiment that encounters can be peaceful and not necessarily Stephen King fodder. We had a dog that stayed with us for several months after we had sent him to his Great Reward, but it was a friendly haunting.

And now I have to go and book atrip to England.

Anonymous said...

Jo, what a wonderful tale you've given us. I've just recently been told that I live in a house where spirits dwell. I haven't heard any foot steps, but there is always a peaceful feeling when I'm there. I look forward to the next time I can travel to your part of the world (from Canada) to do some exploring. Thanks so much


Anonymous said...

Being pedantic, but you mean Northumberland, not Northumbria.

Northumbria is the touristy name for the North East of England and it includes Durham too, so "The Durham moorlands are just as wild and remote and unpopulated as Northumbria" doesn't make sense!

Ambermoggie, a fragrant soul said...

Wow Jo, sounds like you had a fabulous time, wish I'd been there:)
Doesn't the doll look at home in the flowers?
Am busy making one for someone else as we speak. Have put on my blog that I'm willing to make a doll for folks but not for sale only to swap:)
Was lovely to meet you at last:) Her's to the next time

Jo at Celtic Memory Yarns said...

Ian in Newcastle, how delightful to meet a real pedant. Didn't think there were any left in today's relaxed world. And one who reads knitting blogs to boot! Yo!

Dez Crawford said...

Sigh. I have always wanted to go to Hadrian's Wall.

You're not alone in that picture, ya know ... the one of you looking out over the moors there.

I have lived in a malevolently haunted place and also in a peacefully haunted place. The difference is real and palpable. That was the monk all right, crossing to and fro in your room.

And also? I can't describe how much positive energy there is in Ambermoggie's spirit doll.

Thanks so much for the armchair trip. I do want to see it all in person one day.

Unknown said...

Thanks for the wonderful "virtual" tour!

Jen said...

Ooooh! I've been dreaming of walking Hadrian's wall from coast to coast (or as close it goes). Thanks for letting me live vicariously.

artyfartykat said...

What a fantastic post! As an inhabitant of County Durham, you've made me realise just how much I take these beautiful places for granted. Seeing them through someone elses eyes made me realise just how lucky I am!
I would disagree with Ian from Newcastle in that Northumbria includes County Durham. I have always believed Northumberland and Tyne and Wear formed Northumbria, but I could be wrong!!

Roggey said...

I've been fascinated with Roman history (thanks to my father, former military guy) and especially Hadrian's Wall, along with Gask Ridge and Antonine's Wall, after seeing that movie of Clive Owens hotness ("King Arthur") a while back.

While I see no yumminess of Clive, your post is intriguing and informative as usual!

Holly said...

The wild, the quiet and peace. Plus a ghost.

What a wonderful trip and a greatly appreciated post.

Anonymous said...

Such beautiful pictures!! Very neat about the ghosties!